The Redemption of General Butt Naked
Directed by Daniele Anastasion and Eric Strauss
It’s not every day you get intimate with a mass murderer.
In The Redemption of General Butt Naked, a documentary with a funny name but a very serious premise, the viewer gets up close and personal with Joshua Milton Blahyi, a former warlord who was responsible for the deaths of 20,000 people during the First Liberian Civil War (1989-1996).
Blahyi and his Butt Naked Brigade were known for advancing into battle unclothed, raping and murdering in a drug-fuelled trance. “I just used to enjoy putting people in pain,” Blahyi says at one point in the film, gazing into the abyss of his conscience. He says he fought naked because he believed it gave him “spiritual power,” and that, while finishing off his tearful victims, he imagined he was sacrificing them to the gods.
The film catches up with Blahyi in 2008, after he converted to Christianity and launched a campaign of atonement. It reveals him as a complex figure, a blundering fool who elicits affection and horror from the people whose lives he touches. His wife describes him simply as a kindhearted person who is “fun to be with.”
Throughout the film, the war is vividly evoked in original news footage showing boys lurching drunkenly in the muddy streets of Monrovia, firing machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades at their enemies. In the present day, we see the hulking figure of General Butt Naked preaching in a refugee camp church, dancing with his former soldiers and testifying before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
It is hard to gauge the depth of Blahyi’s contrition as he begs the relatives of his victims for forgiveness or tries to rehabilitate the child soldiers he once terrorized. We look to the victims for cues. One young man, whose family Blahyi had killed, seems relieved by the general’s apology. Another girl, who weeps from an eye maimed and blinded by the butt of the former warlord’s gun, says she is moved by his efforts. Others are overwhelmed by his visits, which only stir up old terrors.
Only once do the filmmakers catch their subject in a moment of crystal-clear repentance. “Lord,” he sobs after retreating alone into a hotel bathroom, “when is this all going to be over?”
Drew Halfnight is a writer in Guelph, Ont.
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